K. S. Maniam was born in Bedong, Kedah, Malaysia, in 1942. After a year's schooling in Tamil, he continued in English at the Ibrahim School in Sungai Petani. He trained as a teacher at Brinsford Lodge, Wolverhampton, u.k., and taught for several years in Kedah before attending the University of Malaysia, where he graduated in 1973. He taught for many years in the English department of the University of Malaysia.
His works of fiction and drama include The Aborting, Parablames & Other Stories, Arriving and Other Stories, Haunting the Tiger: Contemporary Stories from Malaysia, The Cord, The Sandpit, The Return,In a Far Country, Between Lives, and Faced Out. He was the first recipient of the Raja Rao Award for literature, which was established by the Samvad India Foundation to honor writers of Indian origin who had settled abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia. Maniam lives with his wife and children in Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
If I had been born a thousand years ago, I would have had a language and a voice. I might have travelled, honoured already in my own village, to other villages singing or reciting the stories I composed about a people and their heroes. As it is, I have many languages, and have never found my voice. All the same I feel I come, rudely awakened, from a deep land of dreams that speak of only one theme: namely, man and his dignity. Let me, at the outset, say that I found neither the man nor his dignity. I began very early to notice how people simply refused to listen to each other. They read the papers, of course, and listened to the radio, and when the TV arrived they even forgot what to see. They were very good at practising whatever was in fashion. Let me take a simple craze that even my schoolmates imitated a long time ago, maybe twenty or thirty years. As I live mostly under the sway of dreams, I forget the exact years.
When I was thrust from my mother's care and protection, I noticed the boys around me, about my age, assiduously reciting words in a strange language called English. I came from a family that spoke Hokkien, and finding my new friends ashamed of speaking that dialect, in which we all felt at [End Page 144] home, I was compelled to memorize every word, in this foreign language, that they used.
The distorted mouths of my friends must have put me off for I remember my mind refusing to retain any of the words we so loudly chorused in the classroom. My mother tried her best to coax me into speaking the language. This puzzled me a lot.
"Why do you want me to learn a language we don't use in the house?" I asked.
She told me a strange story—we were good at inventing fascinating tales, we believed, around acquisitions we didn't need—to soften my attitude toward the language. She said that there lived a people over the sea in another country who went about doing what my own parents had been doing before they came to Malaysia. They had been farmers and carpenters and fishermen and even heroes, when suddenly one of them started babbling. Unlike the others he had been to sea and picked up quite a lot of words from strangers who had crossed many seas. This man taught the others these words and soon how to sell their fish and vegetables instead of just giving them to those who needed them. Slowly, by using the new language, they built powerful and large ships, one of which brought us to Malaysia. Later they conquered the air with aeroplanes and, in a big war, killed millions of enemies. (Here my mother couldn't help smiling.)
"You tell a good story," I said.
My mother whispered something to my father when he came in from the shop and he, in turn, looked sternly at me. Back in the classroom, I shouted along with the other boys and got on well with the teacher. She gave us sweets at the end of the week if...